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Edison and the Ghost Machine

The great inventor's quest to communicate with the dead

By

Thomas Edison

Thomas Edison

"I have been at work for some time building an apparatus to see if it is possible for personalities which have left this earth to communicate with us."

THOSE ARE THE words of the great inventor Thomas Edison in an interview in the October, 1920 issue of The American Magazine. And in those days, when Edison spoke, people listened. By any measurement, Thomas Edison was a superstar in his time, a brilliant inventor during the height of the Industrial Revolution when man was mastering machine. Called "The Wizard of Menlo Park" (which has since been renamed Edison, New Jersey), he was one of history's most prolific inventors, holding 1,093 U.S. patents. He and his workshop were responsible for the creation or development of many devices that changed the way people lived, including the electric light bulb, the motion picture camera and projector, and the phonograph.

GHOST OF A MACHNINE

But did Edison invent a ghost box – a machine to talk to the dead?

It has long been speculated in paranormal circles that Edison did indeed create such a device, though it must have been somehow lost. No prototypes or schematics have ever been found. So did he build it or not?

Another interview with Edison, published in the same month and year, this time by Scientific American, quotes him as saying, "I have been thinking for some time of a machine or apparatus which could be operated by personalities which have passed on to another existence or sphere." (Emphasis mine.) So in two interviews conducted around the same time we have two very similar quotes, one in which he says that he has been at work "building" the device, and in the other that he has merely been "thinking" about it. Somewhat contradictorily, the Scientific American article says, despite Edison's quote, that "the apparatus which he is reported to be building is still in the experimental stage…" as if there is a prototype.

However, since we have no evidence of such a device having been constructed or even designed by Edison, we have to conclude that it was an idea that never materialized.

Although Edison seems to have gotten ahead of himself with this idea in The American Magazine interview, it's quite clear that he had a genuine interest in the idea. While the Industrial Revolution was rolling along with a full head of steam, the Western world was also entertaining another movement of a very different sort – the Spiritualist movement. Operating at opposite ends of the philosophical spectrum – the logical, scientific, and mechanical versus the spiritual and ephemeral – the two movements were perhaps counterweights to each other.

FILLING A NEED

So why would Edison the scientist be interested in such a thing? Psychic mediums were all the rage, and they were conducting séances and spewing ectoplasm faster than Harry Houdini could debunk them. Phony mediums notwithstanding, it was becoming increasing popular to think that it might be possible to communicate with the dead. And if it was at all possible, Edison reasoned that it could be accomplished through scientific means – a device that could do the job that mediums advertised.

"I don't claim that our personalities pass on to another existence or sphere," he told Scientific American. "I don't claim anything because I don't know anything about the subject. For that matter, no human being knows. But I do claim that it is possible to construct an apparatus which will be so delicate that if there are personalities in another existence or sphere who wish to get in touch with us in this existence or sphere, the apparatus will at least give them a better opportunity to express themselves than the tilting tables and raps and ouija boards and mediums and the other crude methods now purported to be the only means of communication."

Edison's was a scientist's approach: If there was a popular need or desire, an invention might be able to fill it. "I believe that if we are to make any real progress in psychic investigation," he said, "we must do it with scientific apparatus and in a scientific manner, just as we do in medicine, electricity, chemistry, and other fields."

Next page: How did Edison's machine work?

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